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Bribery Allegations Against Sojitz

Aluminium Bahrain BSC — known as Alba — has filed a $31 million civil suit in federal court in Houston against Japanese trading company Sojitz Corp. and its U.S. subsidiary, Sojitz Corporation of America. The suit alleges that from 1993 to 2006, Sojitz paid $14.8 million in bribes to two of Alba’s employees in exchange for access to metals at below-market prices. Alba is majority-owned by the government of Bahrain.

There’s no private right of action under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. So Alba’s claims against Sojitz are based on RICO (18 U.S.C. § 1962(c)), conspiracy to violate RICO (18 U.S.C. § 1962(d)), fraud, and civil conspiracy to defraud. The complaint alleges that Sojitz used bribes to buy underpriced product and then “resold the aluminum it bought from Alba at below-market rates to U.S. companies including Enron Corp.”

In September, the Wall Street Journal reported the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into “payments that Bahraini prosecutors allege were made by units of Japanese commodities-trading giant Sojitz Group to employees of an aluminum producer in Bahrain.” The DOJ has never commented on the story. See our post here.

This is the second civil action Alba has filed in U.S. courts with allegations about potential FCPA violations. In March 2008, Alba sued Alcoa Inc., its long-time raw materials supplier, for corruption and fraud. The suit in federal court in Pittsburg alleged that Alba paid $2 billion in overcharges during a 15-year period. The money, according to the suit, first went to overseas accounts controlled by Alcoa’s agent and some was then used to bribe Alba’s executives in return for supply contracts.

Just weeks after Alba sued Alcoa, the Justice Department intervened in the case. It asked the court for a stay while the government investigates possible criminal violations of the FCPA and other laws by Alcoa and its executives and agent. The DOJ said the stay was needed to protect potential witnesses against civil discovery. The stay the court granted is still in effect. The DOJ hasn’t commented on the status of its criminal investigation. Alcoa denied wrongdoing and said it is cooperating. See our post here.

Will the DOJ also intervene in Alba’s suit against Sojitz? It needed the stay in the Alcoa case, it said, because:

The public is “an unnamed party in every lawsuit.” United States v. Reaves, 636 F.Supp. 1575, 1578 (E.D. Ky. 1986) Here, the Complaint alleges that the defendants arranged for Alcoa, a public corporation, through its affiliates and agents, to make payments in violation of the anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA, among other crimes. The proposed stay enables the government to investigate these charges without potential prejudice to its investigation resulting from civil discovery . . . This would thus enable the government to vindicate the paramount public interest in the enforcement of federal criminal laws and resolution of the federal criminal investigation, should the government’s investigation reveal evidence that federal criminal laws were violated. . . .

Sojitz Corp.’s website says that as of September 2009, its business consists of 555 companies including 165 subsidiaries and affiliates in Japan and 390 overseas, with 17,147 employees. Sojitz’s U.S. subsidiary is headquartered in New York. The parent company’s ADRs trade in the over-the-counter pink sheets under the symbol SZHFF.PK.

Download a copy of the December 18, 2009 federal civil complaint in Aluminium Bahrain B.S.C v. Sojitz Corporation and Sojitz Corporation of America here.

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